Last Monday I went into work, and my boss came around, closed the door, and told me she had some sad news: my colleague Val had passed away on Sunday.
Val dead? I could not imagine those two words used in the same sentence. It was truly a shock.
This past week has been a tough week, absorbing the loss of someone I saw often over the past 6 years, someone I liked and admired. During this week, I witnessed my denial and acceptance dancing together, sometimes one leading, sometimes the other.
Val was one of my favorite people in the office where I work. All we had been told was that Val was out on “temporary but indefinite” leave. Somehow I had the impression that he was taking care of a seriously ill loved one.
I couldn’t imagine Val sick. When I was walking on the Town Lake trail regularly on weekends, I’d nearly always see Val running. He and his girlfriend took wonderful vacations — hiking on the Olympia peninsula, scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, a camel ride to the Great Pyramids.
My boss told me Val learned he had lung cancer in May and took leave, that he’d been on chemo, that he’d come through the first round with encouraging signs of improvement, that he’d been in a lot of pain on Friday, had a good day on Saturday, and died Sunday due to a problem with his stent (where they put the chemo drugs in). He was 50.
I found some old emails from Val with links to his vacation photos. I found one of him in Olympic National Park, wearing a floppy hat, smiling hugely. I printed that photo and taped it to the now-closed door of his office. It just felt right. I wanted to remember him happy.
A director later sent an email about Val’s passing and used the phrase “absorbing this loss.” I like that. Absorbing a loss is a gradual process, like a sponge soaking up water.
We bring our losses into our memories, and they become part of who we are.
I went to bed that night vividly remembering Val — the way he teased me after seeing me out on a date — how I was so wrapped up in the conversation, I didn’t notice him (Val) trying to get my attention. Seeing him running on the trail on Saturday mornings. How he laughed when I demonstrated lion pose in yoga class last spring. That was the last time I remember seeing him laugh.
I remembered many smaller moments, of passing him in the hallway, a conversation in the kitchen or across his desk, being in a meeting with him. These memories were more about remembering his physical presence.
Tuesday morning when I arrived at work, I immediately noticed a new sound, a cricket. It was in the kitchen, not visible but very audible.
For a split second, I felt annoyed, and then that feeling dropped completely, replaced by happiness that this cricket had decided to visit and hang out in our kitchen and serenade us.
On Wednesday, someone told me that more photos had been added to Val’s door. By Thursday there were maybe a dozen photos of Val. His door had become a shrine.
On Friday my acupuncturist noticed my grief. It manifests on the lung meridian. She helped me with talk and bodywork, but some part just did not want to give it up yet. It was about more than just Val’s death. It was about change: accepting change and making changes.
I took a solitary walk Friday night, reconciling, integrating, absorbing. I needed that.
I remembered seeing Val before he went on leave and noticing that he seemed stressed, tense. I thought it was about a project he was working on.
With hindsight, I know that he was feeling physical discomfort. Pain from lung cancer.
Friday night I had a dream in which a helicopter crashed in front of me. Usually that means dropping denial.
Val must have gotten so fragile in those 10 weeks of battling cancer.
Saturday I attended a celebration of Val’s life at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. His large family and many people from work came.
Words were said, smiles and hugs shared, tears shed, photos and mementoes displayed, poems read, songs sung, and hands held, under the trees and the big Texas sky.
I am grateful for having lived through this difficult, emotional, contractive and expansive week. I am grateful to Val for sharing my path a little way.
It seems that with every death, we process every previous death and every future death, including our inevitable own. We are more fragile than we like to believe, held together by an arrangement of chemicals and electrical currents, and when our life force moves outside that narrow range, we dissolve and disperse.
I’m so sorry about you losing your health, Val. You are free of pain and suffering now, and for that I am happy for you. I am grateful that you lived a good life, of work and love and adventure, and that I knew you. Thank you for sharing your many gifts.
I am getting out on the river today, doing some paddle-boarding, and doing it for me, doing it because of the model Val provided.
You never know what the future holds.